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27th Nov 2022

Ukrainian couple marry in the UK surrounded by pictures of their family

Jack Peat

A Ukrainian couple got married in the UK surrounded by pictures of their family who couldn’t make it – after the bride fled her war-torn home.

Maria Bilyk, 23, and Vitalij Melynik, 27, maintained a long-distance between Ukraine and the UK since getting together in 2019.

Vitalij, who has lived in the UK for the past decade, proposed while visiting Ukraine in December 2021 and planned to marry in Lviv in June.

But after the war began in February, the wedding was postponed and Maria had to flee her Lviv home to avoid mass shelling, leaving behind her mum and sister.

She crossed the Polish border into Warsaw and after three weeks she had the visa she needed to get into the UK so she could live with Vitalij.

The couple, now settled into their new life in Feltham, west London together, finally married on November 14.

Although miles from home and unable to have family attend in person, they were surrounded by portraits of their families during the touching ceremony.

Maria, a primary school teacher, said: “Before the war, we just wanted to have a nice big wedding in Ukraine with all of our family and friends.

“We also wanted to have a ceremony in the church and then have a lot of flowers. It would be magical.

“It was still really special even though we couldn’t have most of our relatives there.

“Now, the only thing we really want is for the war to finish – and for us to celebrate a big wedding where we could invite as many people as possible!”

Vitalij and Maria got together in 2019 after meeting through friends some years earlier.

Despite Vitalij being based in the UK where he works as a gardener, they maintained their long-distance relationship.

They got engaged on December 30 2021, after Vitalij made a surprise visit back to Ukraine.

They began planning their big day and booking their venue in Ukraine – however the outbreak of war against Russia less than three months later meant their plans were cancelled.

On February 26 Maria fled Lviv to avoid Russian shelling – leaving behind her mother and sister.

After more than 24 hours of queuing at the checkpoint she finally crossed the Polish border the following morning.

Maria said: “It was horrifying as I didn’t know what was going to happen in Ukraine – there were explosions near my home.

“But I have decided to leave because of Vitalij.

“My mum and my sister chose not to flee Ukraine. They simply didn’t want to leave their husbands behind.

“I felt alone in that way – I just couldn’t stay in Ukraine not knowing if I was ever going to see Vitalij again.”

The journey to the UK took more than three weeks in total thanks to a stop in Warsaw waiting for a visa.

Vitalij met her there for a while but she had to stay with a lady she recognised from her village after Vitalij had to leave Warsaw and return to the UK for work.

Maria said: “The visa centre was full of people – it was quite chaotic there.

“People were trying to cut in line to try and to apply for a visa first so it was a bit stressful.

“Also, the war was still going on so every day we would wake up to some terrifying news.

“The place where I was staying small I had to share the lady’s bed – but I’m still really grateful to her.”

On March 17 her visa was issued and the following day, Maria was on a flight to Stansted Airport where Vitalij met her.

Once in the UK, Maria lived with Vitalij in his mother’s house in London, and his aunt offered her a job with her cleaning company.

Maria said: “Obviously I was and I still am missing Ukraine.

“But it wasn’t that difficult for me to settle as we were planning my move to London after the wedding.”

With the help of Bridebook, a wedding planning app and venue finder, they completed the legal work required to secure their dream day at Hedsor House, a mansion in Buckinghamshire.

On November 14 the couple finally walked down the aisle – surrounded by empty chairs as only Maria’s mother managed to travel from Ukraine.

On each chair sat a picture of each wedding guest they had hoped would attend the wedding – while sunflowers, Ukraine’s national flower, adorned each seat.

Maria said: “The wedding has overcome my expectations! The Bridebook and Hedsor team did an amazing job with everything!

“My favourite part of a wedding was an actual ceremony. It was a really special moment.

“We were just holding our hands and looking in each other’s eyes and had to make our vows. The things that the Registrar was saying were really touching!”

Now happily married and settled in Feltham, Maria said they plan to repeat their wedding when the war is over – so the pictures on chairs can be replaced with their loved ones in the flesh.

She said: “This year has just shown us that whatever we are planning could be changed in the blink of an eye.

“The only thing we really want is for the war to finish and for us to celebrate a big wedding where we could invite as many people as possible!”

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